Talks between India and Pakistan hung by a thread on Friday with both sides hardening their positions over a planned meeting between Pakistani national security adviser Sartaj Aziz and Hurriyat leaders ahead of the formal diplomatic engagement.
Tensions flared as Islamabad rejected Delhi’s advisory against meeting Hurriyat leaders and sought to include Kashmir in the agenda of Monday’s talks between Aziz and Indian NSA Ajit Doval.
New Delhi reacted strongly with foreign ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup saying “unilateral imposition of new conditions and distortion of the agreed agenda cannot be the basis for going forward”.
But government sources clarified India was not going to call off the talks and it was for Pakistan to respect what was agreed between Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif in Ufa. The PMs agreed on a meeting of NSAs to discuss all issues connected to terrorism.
“The insistence on meeting Hurriyat as a precondition is also a complete departure from the Ufa understanding. India has always held the position that there are only two stake holders in our relationship, not three,” said Swarup.
Hurriyat leaders say ball in Pakistan's court
“Without confirming either the programme or the agenda, the Pakistani high commissioner invited Hurriyat representatives to consult with the visiting NSA. This provocative action was completely in consonance with Pakistan’s desire to evade its commitment at Ufa to engage in a substantive discussion on terrorism,” Swarup said.
India put the ball firmly in Pakistan’s court as the game of brinksmanship worsened and speculation mounted over who would blink first.
“India remains committed to discussing issues with Pakistan peacefully and bilaterally. In fact, we took the initiative to engage at Ufa. But, unilateral imposition of new conditions and distortion of the agreed agenda cannot be the basis for going forward," the ministry of external affairs said in a statement.
The brief house arrest and release of Hurriyat leaders on Thursday added a fresh twist to the diplomatic tussle, with sources saying the Kashmiri separatists would be detained in Delhi if they tried to meet Aziz “be it before or after (the NSA) talks”.
Amid the battle of nerves, the Pakistani high commission made hotel bookings for Aziz who is scheduled to reach New Delhi on Sunday. Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani will meet Aziz at 9.30am on Monday before the talks begin, Pakistan sources said.
The diplomatic spat snowballed early on Friday after India advised Pakistan against the meeting with the Hurriyat but Islamabad refused to budge.
“Kashmir is a disputed territory as per the UN Security Council resolutions which remain unimplemented. Pakistani leadership has always interacted with the Kashmir/Hurriyat leadership, during their visits to India. Pakistan sees no reason to depart from this established past practice,” the Pakistani foreign office said.
“India’s insistence to introduce conditionalities and restrict the agenda for the dialogue, demonstrates a lack of seriousness on India’s part to meaningfully engage with Pakistan. For its part, Pakistan remains willing to attend the NSAs meeting without any pre-conditions.”
India also hinted at the Pakistani army’s role in trying to scupper the talks. “The people of both countries can legitimately ask today what is the force that compels Pakistan to disregard the agreements reached by two elected leaders and sabotage their implementation,” said Swarup.
“We have made it clear to Pakistan that hosting of Kashmiri separatists will be contrary to the spirit of the Ufa understanding.”
The game of brinksmanship worsened late on Friday as Pakistan said it was disappointed with India’s decision to put pre-conditions for official talks.
“For the NSA talks in Delhi, Pakistan had proposed a comprehensive agenda, consistent with the decisions taken by the two Prime Ministers in Ufa, which included discussion on all outstanding issues, including Kashmir, as well as terrorism related matters,” Pakistan said in a statement.
“Regrettably, the Indian side’s desire to restrict the agenda to terrorism related issues only, amounts to a negation of the decisions taken by the two prime ministers.”
Pakistan’s information minister said on Friday Islamabad was ready for talks, but New Delhi was looking for excuses not to hold them.
“This is not the world’s largest democracy. It is behaving like a fascist state that detains its people for no reason whatsoever,” information minister Pervez Rasheed told media. “It seems that India is looking for excuses not to hold the talks. We have come to the table without any conditions and we will attend without any preconditions.”
India had called off scheduled talks between the foreign secretaries of the two countries last year after the Pakistani envoy met with Kashmiri separatist in New Delhi ahead of the bilateral meeting.